I knew that my final bus journey through the Bolivian Amazon from Riberalta to Cobija was going to be an adventure, as it involves two river crossings, but the onboard drag show came as quite a surprise. I had arrived in Guayaramerin after 5 blissful days on a cargo boat from Trinidad only to find myself in the middle of an all out stoppage.
I had planned to cross the river to the twin Brazilian town of Guajara-Mirim, but a local strike protesting against the high energy costs in the region meant that everything was at a standstill. And I mean everything. Ferries, buses, immigration control, even shops and restaurants, everything was shut. It had been going on for five days, and I was dreading being stranded there indefinitely, but luckily at lunchtime the strike was lifted and I was able to cross for the day to visit Brazil to have an açaí na tigela, one of my favourite fruits.
By this time, though, I had also discovered that there were no direct buses to Rio Branco in Brazil, so I decided to return to Bolivia and head west to Cobija and cross into Brazil from there. In fact, it would be a shorter and more interesting (and, as it turned out, rather surprising) journey. My full return to Brazil would have to wait a few more days.
The following morning I caught a bus to Riberalta, a hot, humid and dusty riverside town. In the wilting afternoon heat I had just enough energy to get my laundry done at an open air place in a field, where many women were washing by hand in sinks. It reminded me of the dhobi ghats in India. Fermina did a great job and my clothes were ready in a few hours.
I had dinner in the main square and watched the locals doing laps around the plaza which is apparently the thing to do here. Years ago people would have been just strolling in a paseo, but nowadays it’s clearly necessary to display one’s wealth and show you own a motorbike or large car. It seemed like a colossal waste of petrol and money to me, especially offensive when there are barefoot children in rags begging at tables.
The most recent editions of guidebooks warn that the journey from Riberalta to Cobija in Pando province can take over 12 hours, so I was pleased to discover that we would do it in 9. It proved to be a memorable trip. The Amazon scenery was impressive and we had to cross two rivers by ferry, the Beni and the Madre de Dios.
The bus was more decrepit than any so far, but I’ve learned one thing about bus travel in Bolivia. The seats may be broken, the curtains ripped, the windows filthy, the air conditioning non-functioning, but one thing will always be in perfect working order: the radio, blasting out at full volume some usually really awful music. But I didn’t care, because the journey was so fascinating. Among the passengers was a boy clutching a live chicken, whether a pet or lunch I never got to discover.
On every bus in Bolivia somebody will get on and try and sell you something. It’s how they make a living. I’m not just talking about food vendors, but people selling sweets, cosmetics and jewellery. Two hours outside Cobija in Pando Department in the middle of nowhere a guy in half drag got on and did a cabaret act and magic tricks as a prelude to selling some chocolate cakes. In a remote part of the Amazon on a dusty, red dirt, unpaved road it was one of the most incongruous sights I’ve ever seen. A kind of Priscilla, Queen of the Amazon.
In Cobija I took my last moto taxi in Bolivia to the border with Brazil where you can cross to the remote town of Brasileia. I completed exit formalities at Bolivian immigration, then started to cross the bridge. There’s something quite fascinating about walking across borders on foot, since for a short while you’re effectively in no man’s land. I began to reflect on the amazing seven weeks I’d spent in Bolivia and the extraordinary diversity of the landscape, from the high altiplano of the Andes to the sweltering heat of the Amazon. But the bridge was short and in no time at all, I was in Brazil.